What is “Stimming” and Why is it Important?

Does your special needs child frequently rock, bob their knee, make annoying humming noises, squint or smell strange things that they shouldn’t?  These behaviours are sensory stimulation or stimming and they’re not simply normal. For a child on the autism spectrum, they’re an essential part of coping with life.

Providing Feedback to Our Senses
Stimming involves supplying feedback to the senses. There are five commonly discussed senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. There are also a few extra senses including equilibrioception (balance), interoception, and proprioception (your body’s position). Then of course, there are internal mental registers which seem able to receive stimulation of their own.

You’ll find that stimming behaviours address one or more senses, for example humming sends signals to both auditory and tactile senses (hearing and touch).

Sensory Overload
People on the autism spectrum often suffer from sensory overload. Note that sensory in this context applies to more than just the five senses. For example, hearing bad news or a sudden change of plan may not seem “sensory” to us but to the person on the spectrum, it’s an internal mental overload – and it causes a lot of stress.

Stimming as a Stress-Reducer
Stimming provides feedback which can distract and reassure a person on the autism spectrum. By rocking for instance, a person on the spectrum may engage their mental, proprioception, equilibrioception and tactile senses in other work which prevents them thinking about an issue which is affecting them. This is the reason why you’ll notice an increase in stimming behaviour when your child is under stress.

Stimming Because it Feels Good
Of course, most stimming behaviours occur naturally without any intention on an individual’s behalf to use them to deal with particular stress. A child may stim simply because it feels good. They may also be completely unaware that they are stimming.

These behaviours can be quite annoying at times as they draw unwanted attention to your child in the form of bullying and they can can often be damaging too. One of my son’s worst stims involved chewing on his shirts. The behaviour has only recently stopped – and he’s twelve. You can imagine our disappointment at finding every one of his shirts chewed with no possibility of handing them down to his younger brother.

Reducing Stimming

  • Unfortunately, there’s little you can do to stop stimming, though making the child aware of a stim is a good first step.
  • Where possible, you can try to encourage your child towards less obvious stims, but be careful. I know parents who just wanted their children to stop nail-biting and when a new stim emerged it was far more obvious and dangerous. Sometimes you just have to accept the small things.
  • The next time you see your child stimming, try to think about the senses that are being used and the issues which need calming. It could be something that is on your child’s mind or it could simply be that your music in another room is too loud.

Stimming is normal and we all do it. Perhaps we don’t do it to the same extent as people on the autism spectrum but maybe that’s just because we’ve found other, “more civilised” ways to stim. Listening to music, chewing gum, smoking, playing with our pens and tapping our fingers are all forms of stimming and they help to make us feel calm.


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About Gavin Bollard

Gavin is a dad who discovered that his own differences were due to Aspergers while researching his son’s diagnosis. His blog, Life with Aspergers, delves into the day-to-day details of Asperger's and related conditions while maintaining a focus on the positives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CMR21 Chloe Rothschild

    Great article Gavin! I don’t really always realize when I am stimming when I start doing it, at least at first I don’t realize it. My biggest stim is pacing back and forth.

  • Gwen Wild

    Thanks for this article, Gavin. I have always felt that we need to allow some stimming for the very reasons you mention. I always recommend teaching that there is a time and a place for stimming (just as there is for any form of relaxation) but that we need to use other sensory strategies as well to keep the stimming from interfering with life (socially as well as functionally).

  • http://www.facebook.com/JudyEndow Judy Endow

    This is a wonderful article. Thanks for not advocating we rid ourselves of our stims when in fact they are solutions to a much bigger problems we live with as we go about our daily lives. Finding replacement stims along with proactive sensory regulation before going out have been helpful in my life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbollard Gavin Bollard

    Thank you Chloe, it was a discussion we had on Facebook that made me think about writing this.

  • coolcritters

    I think more people have a way of “stemming” then we realise. Like when people start pacing, or cleaning the house frantically because they are stressed, or need to go for a jog, or even eat to release tension! Its a way of trying to cope. So its obviously we all have our own ways of stimming ;o) We just don’t do it as often, but its there ;o)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbollard Gavin Bollard

    I was asked how a very young child could develop a stim and I thought it was worthwhile answering it here;

    Young children, babies and even pets are able to quickly determine what they do and don’t like. If a child is overwhelmed by noise, they will quickly learn that putting their fingers in their ears will stop the noise. Similarly, a child may find the motion of rocking pleasurable – we all rocked out babies didn’t we? Perhaps the rocking is similar to womb motion?

    Regardless of how a stim was discovered, if it’s pleasurable, it will be repeated. The feeling generated from the stim is very consistent positive feedback. The “perfect discipline” which teaches your child to repeat behaviours.

    This is no different to a puppy chewing on a bone – they don’t generally do it for sustenance and unlike chewing on slippers, which invokes punishment from their owner, the bone is always rewarding.

    Of course while simple stims such as sucking on a toy are easily achieved, complicated ones like rocking which involves a lot of muscular control take much longer to develop. This is one of the reasons why new parents say that “their child was normal until about the age of three” when they noticed rocking behaviour.

    It isn’t that their child didn’t have autism before, just that the most obvious signs weren’t fully developed.

  • Danette

    Gavin, thanks so much for explaining this. It puts into perspective why children in orphanages rock themselves.

  • Courtney

    My son is almost 5 and Autistic. When he stims, he flaps his hands or spins in circles or smells things. Sometimes we get vocalizations. I have never discouraged this as he is not hurting himself or someone else. When in public, sure we get looks but I just tell those people “He’s coping” usually I get a shoulder shrug and they walk away. Sometimes I get questions and I like that because it gives me an opportunity to educate people about what Autism is. Love this article, I never thought of smoking or clicking a pen as a stim….

  • http://www.facebook.com/CMR21 Chloe Rothschild

    I totally agree with you Judy.

  • Joanna Keating-Velasco

    Great article. At work (where I work with students with various challenges, but many with autism), many new coworkers are constantly in the “don’t do that”, “no”, “stop that” mode all day. It’s as tiring for them as for the student AND the more knowledgeable coworkers observing them. First of all, who wants to hear ALL OF THAT negative all day long, who wants to give all that negative all day long and who wants to be the recipient of that all day long. NO ONE. So it’s lose/lose. So, they wonder how to STOP those behaviors. I suggest that they consider the environment of those behaviors and is it really even needed to stop. If the student is on a break, let him be on a break from the NOs. Also, I let them know, you typically can’t STOP the behavior because it will be replaced with something to provide equal results for them…are you prepared for what this behavior is replaced with? I have the blessing of working with many of these adults students since they were in 3rd grade…so I can see, in perspective, that these “stims” are much more socially acceptable that the “stims” from elementary school. So, can we help the student make them more acceptable and/or provide opportunities or whatever? Look outside of the box, don’t just try to STOP the behavior in its tracks. THANKS FOR THE ARTICLE.

  • Sari

    The idea of stimming is new to me. However, I now realize that I have a few of these “habits”. As a child, I chewed my nails. This is common, what is weird, is that I used to take this slivers of nail and repeatedly run then up between my gums and my teeth. Every now and then they would get stuck, sort of like a popcorn seed, and would take several days to get out. I chewed my nails to the quick, and then would begin to chew off the skin around them. On top of that, I sucked my thumb until I was 12. At that point I was sent to boarding school. It was awful. I did stop sucking my thumb, and chewing my nails…but since then I have chewed the inside of my mouth and picked at any small bump or hair in my arms and face. The only behavior I retain from childhood is running fabric between my nail and my finger. I prefer to do it with blanket binding (I’ve done this since I can remember), but even denim will do in a pinch. The more stressed I am, the less “conscious” I am of doing it…weird as that sounds. Does this sound like true stimming, or am I reaching here? I also pace incessantly when on the phone…but so do my brother and my son.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbollard Gavin Bollard


    Clearly you were not chewing nails because you’re hungry. You were doing it because it felt good, and perhaps because it took your mind off the stresses of the day. The fact that you would further stim with slivers of nail makes it clear that it was all about satisfying a need for feeling. Nail and finger chewing is a very common stim because it engages several senses including tactile senses in the mouth/tongue and in the fingers. It also engages taste and fine motor control, which admittedly isn’t a sense in itself but which involves mental stimulation.

    Your comment suggests that you may have stopped those behaviours as a result of going to a boarding school. This is a common reaction to peer pressure and adult correction . It may also have resulted in the stim changing.

    You’re certainly not “reaching”. Everything you’ve said, including the pacing is a form of stimming and clearly you’ve been using it as a stress reducer whether you were conscious of it or not.


  • Beth

    Great article Gavin. My husband has Aspergers and stims nearly constantly. His favorite way to do it is to repeatedly tap him finger on things. It can be quite loud at times, particularly on tabletops, so we’ve developed a few ways to draw less attention to it. Often, I will hold my hands out to him, palm up, and he will tap my palms instead. This works really well at restaurants where his tapping the table gave the impression of impatience and was a problem sometimes. Now we just look cute and silly instead. My husband has also discovered that feeling the seams of clothing, especially pants, is an acceptable alternative to tapping. He uses this in stressful situations where his hands can’t be tapping, such as meetings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/reneebamber Renee Silvernail

    Saw the photo of child above and looks exactly like my grandson. He makes that exact face alot through out the day. When he makes that face, and tightens up his body, I have turned it into a game, that he seems to truely enjoy. I’ve realized he loves for me to mimic him, and while doing so he becomes obsessed with holding my face, turning it side to side, and changing his facual expressions, then looks to see if I have changed my facual expression. May sound silly, but this simple thing has brought us closer then I could ever have imagined.

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